There are many games that children mostly learn from each other and play without adult direction. Some are of ancient origin, while others are more recent. Māori children had a wide range of traditional games. In contrast, during the early years of settlement Pākehā children had few opportunities to play traditional games from their countries of origin.
In the 1850s, once settlements were more organised, large community picnics became regular events. Adults and children played traditional singing and tagging games. At home, children were taught games by their older siblings or sometimes their parents or grandparents. In the schoolyard children generally learned games from other children, rather than adults.
With the spread of organised sports in the early 20th century many traditional games became seen as primarily for younger children.
Playground rhymes were used in games and as entertainment in themselves. A rhyme recited as the holidays approached was: ‘Two more weeks and we shall be/Out of the gates of misery/No more writing, no more French/No more sitting on a hard board bench/No more walking two by two/Like the monkeys in the zoo,/No more spelling, no more sums,/No more teachers to whack our bums’.1
Singing games were most commonly played by girls. ‘Oranges and lemons’ was the most popular singing game. Two players held hands to form an arch, which the other players passed through as the arch-makers sang the song ‘Oranges and lemons’. At the end of the song a player was caught in the arch. Each caught player chose to be an orange or a lemon. When all players were caught the ‘orange’ and ‘lemon’ teams formed two human chains. A tug-of-war between the teams decided the winner of the game.
‘Nuts in May’ (or ‘nuts and May’) involved two facing chains of players dancing back and forward, each singing alternate verses. Other singing games included ‘Ring a ring o’ roses’ (also known as ‘Ring a rosy’), ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’, ‘London Bridge is falling down’ and ‘The grand old duke of York’. The titles and the lyrics of the songs clearly indicated their British origins.
Chasing and tagging games
Tag or tig was the most common chasing game. The player who is ‘it’ chases the rest and whoever is caught then takes over as the pursuer. Hide and seek involves the ‘it’ player trying to find the others who have hidden. Children were always developing variations of tagging games, such as ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf?’, stuck in the mud, and stiff candles. Games might involve sneaking up on the ‘it’ player, tagged players having to freeze, or tagged players being freed by another player’s actions. A wide range of tagging games continued being played in 21st-century playgrounds.
Māori and Pākehā games
At Ōhau, near Levin, in the 1910s, ‘[a]bout half the children came from two Maori pas in the district … I remember two essentially Maori games Cat’s Cradle and Homai, but the others were all traditional English games I think. These other included Fill the Gap, I Wrote a Letter, Twos and Threes, Green Gravels, Fox and Geese, Oranges and Lemons, Puss in the Corner.’2
The game known as bullrush has been called by many other names including bar the door, prisoner’s base, octopus and king o’ seenie.
The game requires a space on the playground defined by two lines. One player guards the space and calls on other players by name to run for the second line. If the ‘tagger’ catches the running player, they join in trying to catch the other players. If a runner gets through to the second line, all the remaining runners go for the line, creating general havoc. In later 20th century a number of schools banned bullrush, claiming it was dangerous. Despite the ban children have continued playing the game into the 21st century.